Even before Rich Hill re-signed with the Dodgers, this was a rough market for starting pitchers.
Consider that sentence. It’s sort of upsetting. Consider that its implications could have been even more dire had the Cubs not declined Jason Hammel’s option and made him a free agent. Hammel isn’t Chris Sale, of course, but what he is, however, is a quality big league starting pitcher. That’s a big deal in this winter’s market, considering how few of those there are. The list of free agent starters one would relish adding to their rotation wasn’t long to start with, and it’s even shorter now. The remaining candidates are uhh… we’ll get back to you on that. Maybe you can ask Ray Searage how you should feel about Ivan Nova.
Regardless, Hammel isn’t the kind of pitcher that you sign to lead your rotation. He’s the kind of arm you stick in the middle of the group because, more often than not, he’ll give you a decent outing. Steamer projects him to be worth 1.7 WAR next year, which is better than, say, fellow free agent Doug Fister. It’s not as good a projection as Nova gets (2.4 WAR), but there’s a bit more certainty with Hammel than there is betting on Nova’s late-season improvements carrying forward.
Now, Hammel isn’t exactly a workhorse. He’s never reached 180 innings pitched in a season, and given that he was shut down at the end of the year with elbow problems, any team signing him should probably expect him to spend some time on the DL. He’s also going to be 34 next year, and his home run problem seems to only be getting worse as the stuff degrades.
So, yeah, there are some issues here. But this article is supposed to be about Hammel as a valuable commodity. Why are we hyping him up, exactly?
Well, for one thing, teams can never have enough pitching. This is especially true if you’re trying to contend, and even more true when your rotation suspect to begin with. Take the Mariners, for instance. Seattle has a strong foundation of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton. Beyond those three, the picture is much less clear. They’ve got some arms with pulses in Nate Karns, Ariel Miranda, and Chris Heston, but nobody that inspires an overwhelming level of confidence. Hammel would go a long way in stabilizing that rotation.
There’s also the Angels. Corinne Landrey just laid out the argument for Anaheim as a source of potential underdog interest. They too have an interesting front three in Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs, along with Ricky Nolasco bringing up the rear. Adding Hammel to that group makes the Angels that much more legitimate. It also takes some pressure off of their less-than-desirable depth, and puts Jesse Chavez firmly back in the bullpen. Like Seattle, the Angels play in a pitcher’s park, which might be a desirable thing for Hammel at this point in his career, especially with his home run tendencies.
Assuming the price is reasonable, both the Mariners and Angels should be interested in Hammel. Like the Brett Gardner trade I recently advocated for, this isn’t the sort of transaction that alters the course of a franchise. It is, however, the kind of transaction that good teams make to make themselves that much better. Depth is important, especially for teams who don’t have high-level arms ready to soak up the necessary innings when the inevitable injuries strike.
Hammel doesn’t come without his fair share of warts, of course. Beyond just the home run problem, he’s developed a reputation as a guy who runs out of gas down the stretch, and while half-season splits often aren’t predictive, teams are probably a bit leery of Hammel’s consistent fades after the All-Star break. Some numbers that will probably keep Hammel’s price down, even in a thin market for pitching.
First half only, over the last five years, Hammel’s wOBA allowed puts him next to Gio Gonzalez. Second half only, his wOBA allowed puts him next to Bud Norris. For a team looking to stabilize their regular season rotation, Hammel makes a lot of sense. For a team looking for a guy to take the ball in October, there is probably more reason to be skeptical.
Yet, again, you can never have enough pitching, and Jason Hammel is still a pretty decent pitcher. The AL West is shaping up to be quite a dogfight. Houston is looking strong, and the reigning division champions in Arlington can’t be forgotten. Now the Angels are starting to look like spoilers. They have all the incentive in the world to add another quality arm, and the Mariners have all the incentive in the world to try to gain that much more of an edge over the competition.
Hammel should come at a relatively reasonable price because of his age and lack of dominance, plus the elbow issue that adds some additional risk. But despite the fact that we’ve spent more time talking about his warts than his strengths — that’s just kind of how this class of pitchers works — he’s the sort of pitcher that winning teams need. While Hammel isn’t an ace, he can keep you from handing out too many innings to guys who aren’t big league ready, and quickly hand games to your opponents, burning up your bullpen in the process. Hammel will usually give you enough innings to keep you in the game, and for this class of pitchers, that makes him one of the best options out there.
Jason Hammel is a logical next step for the Mariners. He’s a tantalizing possibility for the Angels. These two clubs should be in the business of outbidding the other for his services. For teams lacking rotation depth, he could be the difference between October baseball and an October vacation.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.